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House of Lords Hansard
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14 May 2019
Volume 797

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty's Government, in the light of the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation international year of the salmon, what assessment they have made of wild salmon stocks in the United Kingdom, in particular in Scotland.

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My Lords, I had an interesting letter the other day about the International Year of the Salmon. It said, very politely, “Dear Lord Shrewsbury, do you remember the days of wild salmon in abundance”—oh my God, yes I do—“watching those magnificent fish making their epic journeys upstream to their spawning grounds?” If only. There was a wonderful picture on the front of the largest salmon I had ever seen.

I am most grateful for the opportunity to discuss the problems facing the wild Atlantic salmon, the wonderful king of fish. The problems revolve mainly around fish in the United Kingdom, especially in this, the International Year of the Salmon. I declare an interest as an avid angler—an extremely unsuccessful one—and a member of Salmon & Trout Conservation.

I tabled this debate for two reasons. First, like many keen anglers, I am increasingly concerned about the demise of both salmon and sea trout in United Kingdom, especially Scottish, waters during the past decades. Secondly, I hoped that the subject would attract some excellent speakers of considerable knowledge to highlight a most serious situation. I am delighted to see the speakers’ list and am extremely grateful. I intend to be brief and wish to concentrate on a few suggestions and thoughts. I intend simply to open up a wider discussion, for in this room we have a number of experts, be they anglers, landowners, riparian owners or knowledgeable enthusiasts and conservationists, and time restrictions are tight.

There can be little doubt that the Atlantic salmon is under increasing and unprecedented threat. The figures produced by the Scottish Government, the Environment Agency and Salmon & Trout Conservation make for dismal reading. In terms of rivers being described as “at risk”, the 2014 Environment Agency assessment of salmon stocks showed a decline to the lowest levels on record. Thirty-eight of England’s 42 principal salmon rivers were classed as either “at risk” or “probably at risk”. This is not restricted to England; it is a situation mirrored throughout the United Kingdom.

Many of the problems facing the salmon are acknowledged as being caused by man’s actions: global warming, which is thought to affect feeding at sea; poor water quality through pollutants and the run-off from agricultural land; the proliferation of protected predators; the overfishing of sand eels; and burgeoning numbers of seals and sea lice from fish farms.

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Does the noble Earl realise that, although much of the salmon farming in this country is owned by the Norwegians, they have started in Norway to breed salmon in tanks on land, thus avoiding the problems of pollution and escaping? That does not seem to be happening in this country.

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I am most grateful for that interjection. I did know that.

All these matters and more can, and must, be addressed with great urgency if we are to stem the decline of this great fish. Taking water quality, for instance, one only has to look at the successes achieved on the Rivers Tyne, Mersey and Don to see that it is possible to restore water quality and physical river habitats. In Scotland, the Deveron, Bogie & Isla Rivers Charitable Trust has done remarkable work in bank restitution and other physical reparation works. Where the Deveron has her source in the Cabrach hills, much damage was inflicted many years ago by tax break-funded afforestation. I have been fishing that river for well over 40 years. In the old days, the Deveron was celebrated as one of the best salmon and sea trout rivers in Scotland, where Mrs Tiny Morison caught her record-shattering 61lb salmon in October 1924 at the Wood of Shaws, Mountblairy; I have tried like mad and never had a touch in that particular pool. When I first fished the Deveron, the water rose slowly and fell slowly, designed perfectly by nature. These days, she rises fast and falls away fast, leaving a horrible, black, acidic, peaty water, often lasting for days, which the locals reckon sickens the fish. Since protection came in, the population of mergansers, goosanders and cormorants has ballooned. The damage these birds do to salmon parr is immeasurable.

I have a friend, Robert Shields, who owns a place called Avochie half way up the Deveron. I quote from his email to me this morning: “We stopped our hatchery, funded by anglers, because it was made clear that there would be no funding from central government if we continued. It is a sad fact that since our fishing lives have been taken over by scientists, there has been a relentless decline in returning salmon. Our tracking results point to smolt survival being dire. Smolts are being devoured by goosanders, mergansers and cormorants, and little or no control is taking place, as getting a licence is made so very difficult”.

Progress is being made with radio tagging. In 2016, the trust acoustically tagged 50 smolts and 40% survived to sea. 2017 saw 40 smolts tagged; 42% survived to sea. In 2018, 100 smolts were tagged and, with very low water conditions, only 9% reached the sea. This year they have just finished tagging 100 smolts as part of the Atlantic Salmon Trust’s Missing Salmon Project, which will track them all the way out to sea, but tagging is incredibly expensive and cannot be achieved by donations alone. In addition, surely it is time to take effective action to control the seal population to sensible, sustainable levels. Does my noble friend have any information on this that he can share with me?

This speech is simply a précis: this is such a wide-ranging subject of such importance that I am sure it would warrant a two-and-a-half-hour debate in the main Chamber. Today simply does not give enough time to cover it properly. In conclusion, I applaud the Environment Agency’s five-point approach for action to conserve and enhance the United Kingdom’s salmon population. Successive Governments have made all sorts of flowery, encouraging remarks over many years but have done absolutely nothing. In my view, the only way forward is a partnership between all interested parties, including landowners, farmers, water utilities, Defra and the Environment Agency, supported financially by the Government. With the dreaded B-word in the background—I hate to mention it—maybe if we eventually leave Europe and Mr Gove decides at that stage that he will rejig the subsidy situation for agriculture, there might just be some cash left to put into the environment and to save salmon. Now is the time to act, and without delay. Failure to do so will commit this great national treasure, salmo salar, to the history books. I beg to move.

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My Lords, I thank my noble friend for introducing this timely debate. There are a multitude of possible reasons for the decline in Atlantic salmon. We have heard that fish farms may be a factor, with pollution and crossbreeding. We know that the rise of the seal population is not helpful, neither is the rise of the goosander population, and of course climate change may have an effect, as rivers have become warmer. However, it is clear that the most important factor is probably netting of salmon out at sea, far away from the British Isles. We need a co-ordinated policy from the Government to look at this issue and deal with those who oppose remedial action. It is surely wrong that we should allow people to oppose licences for the culling of cormorants, particularly those of non-native species, or, for example, a licence to cull seals when they swim up a river—far away from their natural habitat.

The angling community has played its part: nets have been bought out at quite large expense. The question we have to ask is where the fish that were netted have gone, because they have not come up the river. They have actually disappeared. If we take that into account, the decline in Atlantic salmon is even direr. Something must be done. As I said, the angling and fishing communities have carried out work to allow more spawning and have opened up rivers for fish parties. A great deal has been done but, unfortunately, it does not seem to be having an effect. I have studied the Environment Agency’s laudable five-point plan but, again, I am afraid that it is not producing clear results. It may be that it will take a longer time, but we have to go further.

The Environment Agency seems to have a mixed view on hatcheries in managed rivers and I would like to ask the Minister about this. The Environment Agency manages its Kielder hatchery, which has been responsible for a large increase of salmon on the Tyne, but I understand it wishes to close other hatcheries—for example, one in Yorkshire on the River Ure. What is the Government’s policy? Some claim that hatcheries are a last resort and should not be used until then, but perhaps we are in the position of last resort now. We need to use hatcheries, which allow us to tag more fish and to learn more about the life of the Atlantic salmon. They are not the whole answer but they must be part of it. We need to understand what the Government’s and Environment Agency’s policies are on this.

My family has a small spate river on the west coast of Scotland, which we have in the past successfully restocked. I cannot prove it—I have no idea why—but it seems to work. It certainly does not do any harm. There are those who claim that when you restock there is not enough food for the fish. Given the decline of fish in our rivers, even with a little restocking there would be plenty of food for them to feed off. With careful restocking, you can also use the genetic fish in the rivers. This is important. I am sure that others will talk about the economic value of salmon to tourism and to jobs in their areas, but we need a more co-ordinated policy from the Government. It should be an international policy because it affects Ireland, Norway, Iceland, America and Canada. To go forward, we must work together with those countries to come up with a solution.

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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl on securing this debate. Three minutes would hardly give one an opportunity of landing a decent salmon, let alone making a serious contribution to this debate. I have had the privilege and pleasure of fishing for salmon in Scotland for over 50 years, initially with Hardy’s on its Junction Pool on the Tweed, then for a number of years in Arthur Oglesby’s courses on the Spey and, over the past 20 years, taking a beat on the wonderful Hendersyde beat of the Tweed, just below Kelso.

I wish briefly to talk about the economic and environmental consequences of a reduction in the adult salmon population. The reduction in the population of salmon means a greater number of unlet fishing days, fewer anglers, reduced income for the riparian and heritable owners and reduced spend, obviously, in local hotels, tackle shops and clothing shops. It potentially puts at risk the staffing levels of gillies and others employed by the owners. More particularly, taking the longer-term view, it could have a possible deleterious effect on the stewardship of the rivers because during the course of the year the riparian and heritable owners and their staff—the ghillies—maintain the paths along the river, the banks, the weirs and the croys to the benefit of not only the angling community but the local community and the wider visitor population.

It may be that the effects of the Environment Agency barring netting off the Northumberland coast will be of some help. Those nets take something like 5,000 salmon each year. I wish the Tweed commissioners every success in the noble work they are doing to try to rebuild the salmon stocks and population of the Tweed.

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My Lords, I declare my interests as in the register. I served on the Caithness District Salmon Fishery Board under the excellent chairmanship of my noble kinsman, who will follow me in speaking in this debate.

Salmon stocks are at risk all across the north-east Atlantic, whether it be in Portugal, Spain, France, the UK or Ireland. Part of the problem is that it is international, through climate change, acidification of the oceans and far too much overfishing at sea. So what can we do at home? Fishing is a devolved matter in Scotland but it is worth noting that the catastrophic decline in salmon catches on the west coast of Scotland coincided with the rise of aquaculture. Scotland is the largest producer of farmed salmon in the EU and it is big business there, but it has consistently got away with rule-breaking, which threatens the environment and wild migratory salmon. Marine Harvest reported that, between 2012 and 2017, sites breaching the national sea-lice trigger level increased from 15% to a horrific 69%. Grieg Seafood admitted to constantly breaking the trigger levels from November 2016 to August 2017. The two Scottish parliamentary committees involved in last year’s inquiry into salmon farming were clear that effective regulation of salmon farms was imperative. It is time for the Scottish Government to fully enforce their regulations, particularly in the International Year of the Salmon.

I turn to England. Today, as we speak, Salmon & Trout Conservation is launching the river fly census. I refer that to my noble friend the Minister because it will be dreadful reading for him and the Environment Agency. It identifies that there is a huge insect species loss and that four out of five rivers in England and Wales are failing ecological health standards. It identifies that more than 300,000 regulated chemicals are currently in use but that only 45 are checked in our rivers. It tells us that atrazine, which is banned in the UK, is still found in water samples. Following the point made by my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury, it tells us about the difficulty that sedimentation is causing to all our wildlife. It also tells us that 45% of rivers exceed phosphorus standards; the Environment Agency does not monitor phosphorus in riverbed sediments. That is horrific reading for any Government. For salmon to survive, they need help from us humans. The Environment Agency is doing its best to make the Government not the greenest but perhaps the dirtiest on salmon fishing.

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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Caithness—the chief of my clan—and more importantly to congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, on securing this debate in the year of the salmon. I declare a number of interests. The first is as chair of the Caithness District Salmon Fishery Board and owner of the River Thurso. The second is that I am chairman of VisitScotland and therefore responsible for the economic side of tourism.

I will make two points on, first, the economic importance and, secondly, the environmental importance. This morning I got in touch with the VisitScotland office and said, “Give me the figures we’ve got”. I can do no better than read out the bullet points they gave me. Fishing tourism delivers in excess of £130 million per year in spend and forms a really important source of income for the Scottish tourist industry. There are 233,000 visits by domestic anglers from the UK, representing 1.5 million bed-nights. Some 41% of all anglers take a fishing break at least once a year, and £500 is the average sum spent by an angler trying to catch a Scottish salmon—that might be going up. More than £24 billion is spent on fishing and sports fishing by fishermen in Europe. The average Scottish angler spends £110 per day during each of his 17 annual days on fishing trips, and Scotland received the highest rating as an angling destination by participants in the TNS activities panel research. One other vital point is that the majority of that spend is made in rural areas, where the jobs and the value of the jobs are of particular importance. I congratulate the Scottish Government on allowing VisitScotland to support salmon anglers, and on the regulations that have been passed over the last three years preventing fish being taken from rivers that are not graded 1 on the grading system.

The main point I wish to make regards the importance of the juvenile biomass in the river. In 2012, Thurso got a £30,000 grant from the Crown Estate. As a result, we have electrofished, using a three-part system under a noted scientist, every year since then. We have added in to the sites of our own choosing last year the sites chosen by Marine Science Scotland. Each of those years’ results are published on our website, and are available to see.

In the very small amount of time available, I will only say this: for every year the juvenile biomass of combined fry and parr have been recorded at the maximum that the environment was capable of looking after. Therefore, for us, there is no point in hatcheries because there are no more territories or food left. We are at 100% capacity at the juvenile stage. However, we have observed a great many other movements and differences that added to our knowledge. For me, the key point is to understand that we are producing juveniles to go out to sea, but we do not know how much of the harvest is now failing to come back. That is the critical point. Climate change, interception at sea and man-made degradation of the riverine habitat are the three great things that we have to face.

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My Lords, I have listened to the debate so far, upon which I congratulate the noble Earl of Shrewsbury. However, I have not heard mentioned what I feel may be another cause of the salmon’s decline in Scotland.

Before the clearances some 200 years ago, the highland economy depended largely on cattle, with very few sheep and deer but an abundance of fish and other wildlife by today’s standards. Sheep replaced the cattle and did very well on the rich ground they left behind. Deer started to increase because the men were no longer there to kill them. Most of the highland catchment areas were gradually taken over by sheep and deer, which prefer the short, nutritious grasses, while cattle eat the longer grass, particularly purple moor-grass—molinia caerulea—which otherwise grows tall and shuts out the light, forming an unhealthy mat when it dies back each autumn. It lives naturally in wettish ground but gradually colonises drier ground, which should carry heather, berries and many other plants, if it is allowed to. It grows quickly and establishes itself in a couple of years after large-scale muirburn, smothering much of what was there before. Cattle then turn it into rich manure—much richer than the droppings of sheep and deer—letting in the light for the benefit of other plants and breaking up the unhealthy molinia mat with their hooves. Earthworms and other insects do well under cowpats, even on acid soil such as ours, whereas they can hardly live under the meagre droppings of sheep and deer.

Some years ago, we ran an experiment, putting cattle back into the catchment area of an old spawning stream. The molinia reduced from 52% cover in 1993 to 13% cover by 2005. The effect on the water quality was less obvious, but there were signs of improvement by the time the experiment ceased in 2009. We are now planning to start another, much longer one, perhaps for 25 years, looking particularly for any increase in the food available for alevins when they finish their yolk.

I should add that our experiments take place in the head waters of the Tay, on Rannoch Moor, which consists of deep peat sitting on granite. Only 60 years ago there were still quite a few salmon; they are now almost extinct. I suppose that spawning streams that run off richer mineral-based rock may not have been so affected by the absence of cattle in their catchment areas, but by the other factors that noble Lords are mentioning. We gave a major conference on our first experiment in 2008. I would be happy to send the Minister the resulting brochure, in case anyone in his department is interested in looking into whether this could be yet another factor in the decline of such a noble fish.

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My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, on securing this important debate. I declare my interests as a director of the Galloway Fisheries Trust, chairman of the Fleet District Salmon Fisheries Board, an owner of a stretch of the Water of Fleet and, perhaps most importantly, a keen fisherman. I will raise an issue that has been particularly devastating for many of the smaller rivers of Galloway and south-west Scotland. It does not seem to be widely known about, although the noble Earl touched on it in his excellent opening speech. I am referring to the impact of large-scale conifer reforestation on river catchment areas.

While planting trees is generally a good thing, commercial conifer reforestation can lead to serious acidification, erosion and saltation of river systems in certain circumstances—there is not time to go into the complexities in this debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, will know, most of the rivers of Galloway have been very seriously affected following the widespread deforestation of the area in the 1960s and 1970s. Salmon and sea trout catches declined dramatically. In fact, there are parts of the river systems where the water is so acidic that fish life is now extinct. Salmon are particularly vulnerable, but other endangered species such as eels and lampreys have also been seriously reduced or, in places, wiped out. We have heard about the other factors such as predation, overfishing at sea, fish farming and so on, but if the river ecology itself does not allow fish to spawn successfully all other remedial actions will fail.

The Galloway rivers have been studied intensively for some years. Action is being taken and is helping to improve the situation, but there is a very long way to go and problems remain, particularly around the requirement to replant after felling, which means that the underlying peatland never has a chance to recover. New planting rules are greatly improved, including the restrictions that have come in on planting trees on peatland, but they remain far from perfect.

The situation in Galloway is obviously a devolved matter for the Scottish Government, but there are very important lessons to be learned for the rest of the UK. I greatly welcome the Government’s plans to plant billions of trees in the coming years, but it would be a tragedy if, in planting those trees, we inadvertently destroy our fragile river ecologies. This is as relevant to the rest of the UK as to Scotland. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will consider the lessons from the Galloway rivers and ensure that they are taken into account when planning the large-scale tree planting that they rightly aspire to?

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My Lords, the tight timelimit precludes me commenting on some of the very important points raised in this valuable debate. I have no interests to declare, but I have to declare that for more than 40 years I represented a constituency in which salmon played a major role in the economy and still has a significant place, with the Tweed, the Aln, the Coquet and the Till and every kind of fishery to represent—river and estuary, net and coble, fixed engines, drift nets at sea and, of course, rod and line, in the form of both highly priced let beats and long-established local fishing clubs whose members enjoy their sport at moderate cost.

All shared concern about the future health of the wild salmon population and had done for many years. Unfortunately, that concern often took the form of all those who fished for salmon believing that all other categories of people fishing for salmon should not be doing so. As a result, there was a tendency to assume that removing one fishery or another would solve the problems that have been so well described today.

Falling numbers in both the Scottish fisheries and most of the English rivers suggest otherwise. On the Tweed, all but one of the 20 or more netting stations have closed. This year comes the complete closure of the north-east drift net fishery, with no licenses being issued from this year on. None of this alters the basic facts about salmon stocks, about which our knowledge is still very incomplete. That is why the research that the noble Earl mentioned—on smolts, for example—is extremely valuable. The Tweed Foundation is tracking smolts as they move downriver in the Tweed. It has recorded that they travel mostly at night and can cover 40 kilometres in two nights.

Research is also trying to establish the extent of cormorant and goosander predation of salmon. You can see predation by seals in plain sight in the estuaries and, increasingly, upriver. It is surprising how far the seals will go. We need more attention on habitat issues: sand and gravel extraction, water levels, water temperature—for which we do not really have any control—and water quality. Very noticeably, the Tyne became the best salmon river in England through a combination of improved water quality and the hatchery that was described earlier.

However, we know too little about what determines the total numbers, survival rates and return rates of salmon over the large areas of sea they traverse. We have concerns about disease and the impact of escaped farm salmon. We also have to note that catch figures are not a completely reliable guide to stock figures, and counting systems have presented many problems over the years. We still have some uncertainty in our knowledge of the precise levels of stocks.

Salmon fishing has been part of the lifeblood of north Northumberland. Part of it has been an ancient craft practised in traditional ways by netsmen. The world has now changed, and we are increasingly reliant on the very significant contribution that rod angling makes to the economy of the area. My noble friend Lord Lee described some of that, and it is valuable. We all still wonder at the beauty, ingenuity, magnificent migration skills and endurance of the salmon. We need to do everything we can to help, rather than hinder, its presence in our rivers.

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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, for tabling the debate and to all noble Lords who have, in their own ways, spoken passionately about the challenges faced in conserving our wild salmon stocks for the benefit of ourselves and future generations. They are indeed magnificent creatures, as anyone who has stood in the shallows of a Scottish river and watched them leaping as they travel upstream can attest. It is one of the most dramatic cycles of nature, from the rivers where they spawn to the oceans where they feed, then back again. Yet over the decades we have waged a war of attrition against them by draining and damming rivers, building on riverbanks, overfishing streams and allowing millions of genetically inferior farmed fish to escape and mix with the wild population. This has had a disastrous impact, given the concentration of disease and sea lice infestation predominant in farmed fish.

Although it was news to me until this debate was tabled, I am not surprised that it was felt necessary to have an International Year of the Salmon. The evidence of declining wild salmon stocks is clear, as the noble Earl and other noble Lords have described. As many noble Lords have said, we will need more robust action than the previous proposals put together on a multi-agency basis following the UK salmon summit of November 2015.

This is a bigger crisis than the decline of a single species, magnificent though it may be. The UN report published this month spelled out the huge drop in biodiversity that is undermining the very existence of life on earth. Rather belatedly, we are understanding our interdependence on the other species we have neglected or destroyed. This is true in the marine environment as much as on land. Chronic overfishing by commercial fleets on a global scale is permanently depleting fish stocks. In the UK, fish farmers demand a ready supply of fishmeal to feed to their captive stocks and we still allow dredging of the seabed to supply the nation’s expanding appetite for scallops.

Add to this the impact of climate change—with warming waters, drying up rivers and rising sea levels changing the natural habitats in which salmon thrive—and it becomes clear that action on a global scale is necessary. I hope that the Minister can demonstrate that the Government understand the true nature of this challenge, are ready and willing to act, and have the means and determination to reverse this trend. I look forward to his response.

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My Lords, I am pleased to respond to this Question for Short Debate. I thank my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury for initiating it. I am also conscious of the knowledge and experience of many Peers who have spoken this afternoon on this subject. Perhaps they can be described as a forum piscarium.

I start by acknowledging the importance of the north Atlantic salmon and why we need an international year of the salmon. North Atlantic salmon are a protected and iconic species. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, said, their epic migration is one of nature’s greatest stories. Each spring, juvenile salmon swim thousands of kilometres from their home rivers to feed in cold north Atlantic waters. Once mature, the salmon return—or are supposed to return—to the same rivers to spawn. However, the Government are concerned about the widespread decline in salmon stocks that is currently seen not just in UK rivers but throughout much of the north Atlantic.

The marked decline in the abundance of Atlantic salmon has occurred over the past 20 to 30 years. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was estimated that around 1.3 million adult salmon were returning to rivers in the UK each year. This has fallen to fewer than 500,000 today. I do not know whether many noble Peers saw “Countryfile” last Sunday. I just happened to switch it on. It was an initiation as it is a new subject for me. It was interesting to see how they measured the smolts to be sure that they were the right size for tagging. The smolts were then anaesthetised, tagged and released. It was a fascinating programme and process.

As has been mentioned, a key cause of the decline has been a large increase in the mortality of salmon during the marine phase of their life cycle. I must be frank that the precise reasons for this are unclear, although they are considered to be multifarious. As my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury said, they are likely to be man-made. However, broad-scale changes in ocean conditions and plankton communities have been documented, along with related impacts on fish communities. The underlying cause is most likely to be climate change.

While countries are looking to take whatever action they can to minimise factors that might impact on salmon during the marine phase of their life cycle, we have more control over the pressures on salmon when they are in freshwater and coastal environments. Extensive measures have been introduced throughout the UK in recent years to reduce salmon exploitation to more sustainable levels and to ensure that as many returning salmon as possible survive to spawn. Water quality improvements have enabled salmon to recolonise some rivers that were previously impacted by pollution. I am particularly mindful of the success in the River Tyne. These successes demonstrate that, through careful management and partnership working, salmon stocks can recover even in the context of poor sea survival. Set against this backdrop, the International Year of the Salmon aims to bring people together globally to share and develop knowledge more effectively, raise awareness, particularly among underrepresented groups, and take action to protect all salmon species.

I now turn to the pertinent question raised by my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury. Fisheries policy within the UK is devolved and, as such, national Governments produce annual salmon stock assessments in their respective areas. These assessments reflect the state of stocks within our rivers and estuaries. Scotland has the largest wild salmon resource in the UK and carries out annual assessments on 173 rivers or small groups of rivers. In contrast, 64 principal salmon rivers are assessed each year in England and Wales and 16 in Northern Ireland. Despite the devolved nature of fisheries policy, the UK and Scottish Governments are looking to address the depletion of stocks—indeed, our respective officials are due to meet again tomorrow to discuss this very issue.

Another important forum for UK-Scottish government co-operation is the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization—NASCO—with which Peers will be familiar. In assessing salmon stocks in line with international guidance from NASCO and the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea—ICES—each jurisdiction has established so-called conservation limits. These define levels, measured in terms of spawning fish required, below which stocks should not be allowed to fall.

Compliance with conservation limits requires an assessment of the number of salmon returning to each river. Ideally, such information is derived from fish counters or traps, but where these do not exist—noble Lords will note that counters and traps are very costly to install and run—assessment is based on reported catches and population modelling. These assessments provide local managers with the information that they need to manage individual river stocks. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Beith, and others said, verification of the numbers is far from perfect, as I think we would all acknowledge.

The collated data is also utilised by ICES in providing scientific advice to NASCO to enable it to meet its responsibilities in managing the high seas fisheries. Unfortunately, recent annual salmon stock assessments provide ongoing cause for concern, as has been mentioned today. For 2017—the last year for which we have compliance assessments for all UK countries—only around half of those assessed met their conservation limits. More recently, as my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury said, the hot, dry summer of 2018 provided unfavourable conditions for returning salmon, and only 14 rivers—22%—met their conservation limit in England and Wales, the joint lowest figure on record. Other stock status indicators, such as information from fish counters and juvenile surveys, also indicate declining trends in many UK rivers. In summary, therefore, stocks in all parts of the UK are currently considered to be in a depleted state.

I shall now detail what the UK Government are doing to address the fall in stock levels, and I hope it is a better picture than the one painted by my noble friend Lord Caithness. Perhaps I may answer one question that he raised about sedimentation and chemicals in rivers, and the Environment Agency, in his words, not monitoring phosphorous levels. The Environment Agency undertakes rigorous testing of chemicals within the aquatic environments, including monitoring activity within its five-point plan, which was mentioned this afternoon. Details of the specific monitoring of phosphorous and other chemicals can be provided in writing following this debate, and I would be delighted to send a letter on that to all Peers who took part.

Internationally, the UK Government’s commitment to salmon conservation is evidenced through their membership of NASCO. Parties to NASCO currently include the United States, Canada, Norway, the Russian Federation, interestingly, the European Union and Denmark in respect of the Faroe Islands and Greenland. Measures agreed by NASCO have resulted in great reductions in fishing effort for salmon in the North Atlantic and the adoption of international best practice.

Domestically, I have already touched on the need to address pressures on salmon in their freshwater phase. Improving the environment, as set out in the UK’s 25-year environment plan, is key to improving salmon stocks. These environmental improvements will build on the work that has already been done to significantly reduce salmon exploitation.

Regulations introduced in England in December 2018 closed the north-east drift net fishery, a mixed-stock fishery that annually took more than 9,000 salmon, and it means that all coastal mixed-stock fisheries have now closed—a point that the noble Lord, Lord Lee, raised. I think that our figures are slightly greater than his but we can talk about that later. The regulations also cover a number of smaller net fisheries and were introduced in tandem with increased catch and release by anglers. Regulations introduced by the Scottish Government for the 2019 fishing season require that mandatory catch and release will apply to 94 rivers and river systems across Scotland. In addition, the regulations continue the prohibition on coastal netting of salmon, introduced in 2016.

I should like to move on to talk about predation—an important subject that was brought up by my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury—and what we are doing to address it, specifically in relation to seals and cormorants. As he will be aware, seals in England and Wales are protected under the Conservation of Seals Act 1970. Additional measures apply in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The 1970 Act prohibits taking seals during a closed season, except under a licence issued by the Marine Management Organisation. Fishermen may shoot seals during the annual closed season only if serious damage is being caused to catches or gear. During the remainder of the year, seals may be shot provided that an appropriate licensed firearm is used.

In response to growing concerns, trials with acoustic deterrent devices—so-called ADDs—have been conducted on several occasions in Scotland to try to prevent seals swimming up salmon rivers. Another approach has been to sweep seals back to the sea using a boat fitted with an ADD, and this has proved successful in some trials. In addition, a robust and portable seal trap has been built and tested under field conditions, so work in this respect is ongoing.

My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury also talked about damage by birds and what government funding there might be for this. Licences are available from Natural England to shoot cormorants and goosanders. In England, approximately 2,600 licences were issued last year out of a total of 3,000 available. Special licences can be—and are—issued during the salmon smolt run. No licences were issued in England to shoot mergansers due to their very small population and lack of significant impact. I have received advice on this particular point but I want to double-check that information for myself. I will then write to noble Lords.

My noble friend Lord Astor raised the question of government policy on the closing of hatcheries. He will know that this is a devolved issue for Scotland but the Government’s policy in England is not to issue permits except in exceptional circumstances. Nothing is allowed in Wales. Hatchery on the River Tyne has not been a principal factor in the recovery of the Tyne stocks; an improvement in water quality was the key reason for that. Hatcheries reduce genetic fitness in wild populations.

My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury and the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, in particular made an interesting point relating to afforestation; I thank both noble Lords for highlighting its impact. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, cares deeply about this matter, particularly in relation to Galloway, and has raised it with my noble friend Lord Gardiner. As he will know, forestry is known to influence the degree of acidification in soils and nearby water courses. Reductions in emissions of acidifying atmospheric pollutants have brought about improvements in water quality, but acidification has caused the loss or reduction of Atlantic salmon populations.

I realise that my time is running rather short. I will finish by thanking my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury for securing this important debate. Make no mistake, salmon stocks are in perilous danger. However, the Government believe that we have sound assessment and management procedures in place for UK stocks, although there is clearly more work to be done. The Government remain fully committed to salmon conservation, both nationally and internationally, and intend to remain an active member of NASCO, particularly after we exit the EU. As was said, we must all continue to work together nationally and internationally to tackle this great problem.

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We have plenty of time left. As a recent convert to “Countryfile”, would my noble friend note that one of its producers is very keen on preventing any form of pest control? Would he encourage the Environment Agency not to listen to this producer?

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I thank my noble friend. I was not aware of that. I will go back and find out about it. I will take note but I will not promise necessarily to follow up on it. Salmon are a resilient species. They survived the Industrial Revolution and now we need to help them bounce back from their current decline.

Committee adjourned at 7.23 pm.